02 February 2010

The Drosophila of Unattributed Quotes

In my post on Scientific American's Chess Neuroscience, I noted that 'The Expert Mind' by Philip E. Ross, the only full length feature article in the list, deserved its own post. The article, which appeared in the August 2006 issue of Scientific American, is no longer available on SciAm.com, but if you note the article's first sentence

A man walks along the inside of a circle of chess tables...

and click your heels three times, you might be able to locate a copy somewhere on the Web. In case you can't find it, here's a synopsis: 'The Expert Mind' was subtitled

Studies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in other fields as well.

The main points were summarized

Overview / Lessons from Chess
  • Because skill at chess can be easily measured and subjected to laboratory experiments, the game has become an important test bed for theories in cognitive science.

  • Researchers have found evidence that chess grandmasters rely on a vast store of knowledge of game positions. Some scientists have theorized that grandmasters organize information in chunks, which can be quickly retrieved from long-term memory and manipulated in working memory.

  • To accumulate this body of knowledge, grandmasters typically engage in years of effortful study, continuously tackling challenges that lie just beyond their competence. The top performers in music, mathematics and sports apears to gain their expertise in the same way, motivated by competition and the joy of victory.

Three corresponding sections were titled

  • [Chess:] The Drosophila of Cognitive Science,
  • Chunking Theory, and
  • A Proliferation of Prodigies.

and three quotes were highlighted.

  • Much of the chess master's advantage over the novice derives from the first few seconds of thought.
  • The 10-year rule states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field.
  • The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born.

There is much material in Ross's article that is worthy of further comment and I'll save that for future post(s), but before I sign off, I'll nitpick two points. The first is the Capablanca quote in the opening anecdote.

How did he play so well, so quickly? And how far ahead could he calculate under such constraints [a 28 board simul]? "I see only one move ahead," Capablanca is said to have answered, "but it is always the correct one."

Coming from one of the best chess players of all time, this well known quote seems so unworthy that it must have been said humorously. Indeed, in a review of a recent Kasparov book, Kasparov's How Life Imitates Chess by Edward Winter, the world's leading chess historian and Capablanca scholar wrote,

The heading to chapter 5 [...] professes to cite Capablanca: "I see only one move ahead, but it is always the correct one." No source is given, of course, because none is known (see, for instance, the discussion in C.N. 4483), and that of itself should have resulted in the quote being expunged. Are there not enough authenticated chess observations to choose from?

Chess Note 4483 appeared in Chess Notes : July 2006, where Winter explained,

4483. The best move: [A correspondent] draws attention to a recent chess article by Philip E. Ross in the Scientific American which is available on-line. As regards the statement attributed to Capablanca that he saw only one move ahead but always the correct one, we refer readers to C.N. 2085 (see page 325 of Kings, Commoners and Knaves), where a correspondent noted Al Horowitz's claim that the words were said not by the Cuban but by 'New York’s East-side pride', which suggested Charles Jaffe [...]

It was apparently Jaffe who said, 'I see only one move ahead...', as a witty response to Capablanca's more conventional claim '[I see] about ten moves'. By coincidence, Kasparov repeated the Capablanca anecdote in a very recent piece titled The Chess Master and the Computer, which touches on the same themes as the Ross article.

As for how many moves ahead a grandmaster sees, Russkin-Gutman [whose book was the object of Kasparov's review] makes much of the answer attributed to the great Cuban world champion José Raúl Capablanca, among others: "Just one, the best one." This answer is as good or bad as any other, a pithy way of disposing with an attempt by an outsider to ask something insightful and failing to do so. It's the equivalent of asking Lance Armstrong how many times he shifts gears during the Tour de France. The only real answer, "It depends on the position and how much time I have," is unsatisfying.

Nitpick number two is on the quote 'Chess is the Drosophila of Cognitive Science'. The original and better known quote is 'Chess is the Drosophila of Artificial Intelligence'. Although cognitive science and artificial intelligence are related, they aren't the same thing. By confusing them, we are denying Alexander Kronrod's greatest claim to fame. For the moment Google gives AI a three-to-one advantage over cognitive science in references to 'Chess is the Drosophila of [whatever]', but since chess wins in either case, I'll stop this grumbling and say no more.

1 comment:

Ako's note said...


i enjoyed reading it and i'm really thankful

and there is a question: how could i found more information, i mean any book or article