Chess: Far from Black and White

Adrian quickly glanced at the clock before directing his gaze onto the 64 black and white squares in front of him. After ten minutes of contemplative silence, he finally appeared ready to make a move. Adrian pawed his remaining bishop while ensuring that the bottom of the piece never left the chessboard – he had to be absolutely certain of the next sequence. Again and again, the deadly chess dance between Adrian and his rival, Carrie, unfolded in his mind. With a deep exhale, Adrian advanced his bishop and captured one of Carrie’s rooks. Carrie, a rook herself, didn’t hesitate one second to capture Adrian’s bishop with her queen. Adrian grinned widely from ear to ear. Carrie had fallen straight into his trap. She didn’t know it just yet, but Adrian had already won the match.


Have you ever wondered how some chess players are able to read the game, multiple steps in advance? Although chess is sometimes referred to as an art, there is science behind the common pastime.

Originally, due to the high numbers of left-handed chess players, Cranberg and Albert (1988) hypothesized that the right brain hemisphere dictates chess aptitude. The right hemisphere is known to control visual processes. However, this simplistic explanation was soon disregarded in light of neuroscience research. A study by Nichelli et al. (1994) found that chess-playing can be organized into four distinct activities:

1.      Colour separation: distinguishing between black and white chess pieces

2.      Spatial analysis: evaluating where chess pieces are on the board

3.      Rule retrieval: remembering the rules that govern how each piece moves

4.      Checkmate judgment: visualizing potential sequences, including moves and counter-moves

Positron emission tomography (PET) was then used to monitor the brain activation of experienced chess players. During the colour separation task, players had to identify which colour chess pieces were on the board. Next, in the spatial discrimination task, an “X” placed on a square and players had to recognize the colour of the chess piece nearest to it. Both of these tasks predictably activated the occipital lobe – home to the visual cortex – on both sides of the brain. For the rule retrieval task, players had to determine whether a specific move was plausible. The hippocampus, involved in memory organization, and the left temporal lobe, associated with memory storage, showed activation in the left side of the brain. Lastly, during the checkmate judgment task, players had to decide if the white or black team could obtain victory with the next move. This task activated the frontal lobe on both sides of the brain; the frontal lobe governs complex problem-solving ability.

Most recently, Bilalic, Langner, Ulrich, and Grodd (2011) compared activation of the fusiform face area (FFA) in rookie and experienced chess players. The FFA is associated with facial recognition. The study found that the FFA exhibited more activation when chess players, regardless of skill level, were shown faces, rather than chessboards. When the chess players were shown a chessboard with the pieces in starting position, the experienced players demonstrated much greater FFA activation. This trend was also seen when the players were asked to study an ongoing chess game.

Studying the brains of chess players has many potential implications, such as the development of treatment programs for brain-injured patients with impaired cognition. Researchers also hope to gain a better understanding of the process of judgment in healthy individuals.

What does the future hold for chess-specific neuroscience research? Many studies fail to provide a direction for subsequent exploration, but if the game of chess has taught us anything, it is that we should never be surprised by the next move.

Written by Maxwell Tran



Image from:

Bilalic, M., Langner, R., Ulrich, R., Grodd, W. (2011). Many faces of expertise: fusiform face area in chess experts and novices. Journal of Neuroscience 31:10206-10214.

Cranberg, L., & Albert, M. (1988). The chess mind. In L. K. Obler & D. Fein (Eds.), The exceptional brain. Neuropsychology of talent and special abilities. New York: Guilford Press.

Nichelli, P., Grafman, J., Pietrini, P., Alway, D., Carton, J., Miletich, R. (1994). Brain activity during chess playing. Nature 369(6477):191.




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