Thursday, July 17, 2008

Adriaan de Groot, chess psychologist (1914–2006)

16.08.2006 – In the 40s, 50s and 60s the Dutch psychologist and chess master conducted a number of ground-breaking experiments in the cognitive processes that occur in the brains of strong chess players. A recent Scientific American article bears testimony to this research. Adriaan de Groot died in Schiermonnikoog, Holland on August 14. He was 91. In memoriam.

Adrianus Dingeman de Groot, commonly known as Adriaan de Groot, was born on October 26, 1914 in Santpoort, Netherlands. He was a pyschologist and chess master, and became famous for conducting cognitive chess experiments in the 40s, 50s and 60s. His initial thesis on the subject, "Het denken van den schaker", was published in 1946. The English translation, Thought and Choice in Chess, appeared in 1965.
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De Groot conducted his chess experiments on players from many different backgrounds, all the way from rank beginners to strong grandmasters. His goal was to explain how chess experts could grasp a full board position, assess the situation, find constructive ideas of what to do next, and in fact find good moves, all withing seconds of being confronted with the position.

In his experiments the participants were required to look at a chess position, while expressing their thought processes verbally, while a researcher recorded them. De Groot's most startling result was to show that in grandmasters most of the processes that went into finding a good move occurred during the first few seconds of contemplation of the position. He defined four stages of the thought process:

1. The orientation phase – here the strong chess player grasped the position and formulated general ideas of what to do.
2. The exploration phase – this was characterised by the analysis of concrete variations.
3. The investigation phase – this was where the strong player actually decided on a probable best move.
4. The proof phase – here the subject spent time in confirming the validity of the choice reached in phase three.

De Groot drew attention to the role of memory and visual perception in these processes, and to how strong players, especially grandmasters, used experience with past positions to expediate the processes listed above.

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