25 February 2014

Chess and Spatial Intelligence

A few weeks ago, as part of an ongoing 'Chess in School' series, I wrote a post titled 'Chess in School' Is Experimental, based on Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences. As background for that post,

I located a copy of Gardner's book, 'Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences', and searched for references to chess. I found more than 50 references, half of them in the chapter titled '8. Spatial Intelligence'.

While the exercise didn't shed much light on the 'Chess in School' movement, it did pique my curiosity about Gardner's theories and their relation to chess.

The different intelligences are explained in six chapters:-

Part II - The Theory
5. Linguistic Intelligence
6. Musical Intelligence
7. Logical-Mathematical Intelligence
8. Spatial Intelligence
9. Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence
10. The Personal Intelligences

The discussion of chess takes three pages of the 35 page chapter on 'Spatial Intelligence' and is largely based on the work of Binet. Here is how Gardner introduces the topic (p.192).

If one had to choose a single area to illustrate the centrality of spatial intelligence, chess would suggest itself as a strong candidate. The ability to anticipate moves and their consequences seems closely tied to strong imagery. And, indeed, chess masters have generally had outstanding visual memory -— or visual imagination, as they call it. Yet a close examination of these individuals reveals that they possess a special kind of memory.

In a pioneering study nearly a century ago, Alfred Binet, the founder of intelligence testing, examined mnemonic virtuosity in blindfolded chess. This is a form in which, classically, individuals play several games simultaneously against an equal number of opponents. The opponents can each see the relevant board, but the blindfolded chessplayer cannot. His only cue is a recitation of the last move made by his opponent, and on that basis he must make his move.

What do the players themselves say? In Binet's report, we get an initial clue from a Dr. Tarrasch who writes, "Some part of every chess game is played blindfold. For example, any combination of five moves is carried out in one's head -— the only difference being that one is sitting in front of the chess board. The sight of the chessman frequently upsets one's calculations." We encounter here evidence that the game is typically represented at a relatively abstract level: the identities of the pieces, let alone their physical attributes, are completely extraneous. What is important is the power of each piece -— what it can and cannot do.

This struck me as a curious angle from which to observe chess. While there is no denying that the spatial element is important to chess -- as it is to any board game I can think of -- most good chess players would consider the 'Logical-Mathematical Intelligence' to be just as important. I'll continue with that thought in a future post.

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