Why Cavemen Suck at Chess

Turn back time several thousand years and imagine this situation:

You’re traveling with your tribe, trying to get to your cave before dusk. You get tired and decide to stop by a fallen tree to rest. Suddenly, you hear a noise in the shadows behind you. You leap to your feet and duck your head, fiercely sweeping your eyes back and forth, spear in hand. Unsure what caused the rustle in the leaves, you run back to rejoin with the rest of the group.

Your decision in this scenario is instinctive but actually quite logical. The noise might be a rabbit to game, but it might also be a wolf ready to attack. Your brain is hardwired to know that it’s more costly to miss the sign of a threat than to miss the sign of an opportunity.

Due to this ingrained truth, our brain is much more vigilant of negative scenarios, and we have far greater incentive to avoid negative events than we do to go after positive ones.

This was well summed up by Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson when he said:

To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities).

This is true for all of us, due to our common humanity. To avoid these three mistakes is a most difficult task, because like some of the biggest mistakes in life, they’re errors of omission. You make errors of omission by default, and you have to constantly remind yourself to avoid them.

We are all subject to this, because of that same common humanity. This is true in life in general, and guess what — life imitates chess. Let us roll the clock right back to present time, and imagine this situation:

It’s your move and you’ve been contemplating the same moves over and over in your head. You feel like you’ve thought long enough and the return on investment for additional thinking time is severely diminishing. You make your move and your nerves are starting to calm down when — damnit! You just missed a brilliant Rook sacrifice that would have made Mikhail Tal proud.

There is a whole host of reasons that you may have missed the Rook sacrifice. You may be very nervous about your friend’s board, not feeling well because you missed your snack, suffering from lack of sleep, or distracted by something. However, it would be a mistake to overlook the possibility that negativity bias is at play.

All too often, we avoid thinking about ‘losing a Rook for a pawn,’ because our brain has assigned negative feelings to such a move. Furthermore, the brain’s overwhelming inclination to dwell on this negative occurrence (missing that move, for example) can leave us unable to play well for the rest of the game. What’s more — it may be a move that you never would have missed in a tactical exercise (more on this later, though). Psychology is key in chess (one reason why it’s better to play against people than computers when you’re trying to improve). That is why the first game of a world championship match can have drastic effects on the rest of the match and alter history.

What’s even more interesting, though, going back to the Rook sacrifice example, is that your brain will usually also assign negative feelings to even contemplating such a Rook sacrifice. Your reptilian brain will keep you from taking on the correct thought processes required to analyse your move! That brings us to the next psychological phenomenon, magical thinking, which we all do naturally to some extent. This phenomenon affects our chess play in some really interesting ways, and often works together with the negativity bias. This will be the subject of another article soon. The point to bring home here is that by actively being aware of underlying thought processes, you can greatly improve your chess.

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