Improving our skills

what we can learn from chess players

Ruth Livingstone
5 min readJun 22, 2014


Whether or not we play chess, there is a lot we can learn from studying the skills of great chess players. And we can learn even more by understanding how good chess players continue to improve.

Chess is a complex game. You might think chess experts would take some time to come to a decision.

First of all, they must study and make a careful analysis of the board. Next, they have to consider all the possible moves available and weigh up all of the possible counter-moves by their opponent. Then, by a process of logical deduction, they select the best move to make.

But, if you watch a chess Master at work, particularly if they are playing an exhibition tournament against a large number of lesser players, you will see they move very quickly, often seeming to assess the board and make their choice in a matter of seconds. Watch a Chess Master at work and it almost looks at though the Master isn’t thinking at all!

How does this happen? And what can we learn from chess that might help us improve the speed and quality of own decision-making?

Pattern Recognition

Let’s look at how chess players use their knowledge of chess during a match.

During a game, experienced chess players aren’t looking at the board as if it was something completely new and unique. No. They are looking for familiar patterns.

The first pattern they look for is the pattern made by the chess pieces: the position of the pieces on the board and their relationship to each other. I will call this ‘situation-pattern’ recognition.

“When the move is made in the mind’s eye — that is, when the internal representation of the position is updated — the result is then passed back through the pattern perception system and new patterns are perceived. The patterns in turn will suggest new moves, and the search continues.”
(Chase & Simon, 1973).

According to Chase and Simon, the player will then consider a possible move and hold, in their mind’s eye…



Ruth Livingstone

I was an NHS GP for 25 years. Studied creative writing at Birkbeck University. Now walking around the British coastline in very slow stages.