Columns | February 04, 2010 17:00

What Your Body's Thinking About

Mikhail TalThere’s a picture of Mikhail Tal that has always seemed to me the ultimate chess player’s pose: Tal's looking at the board, chin on his thumb, his other arm folded under his fist, utter determination in his eyes. But what was Tal actually thinking at the time the picture was taken?

When I was just starting out as a chess player, I noticed my opponents often shifted in their chairs as they sat thinking behind the board. I sometimes imagined I could read their thoughts as they bended over the board or leaned backwards with their hands behind their head. Now he’s thinking about e4-e5, no doubt about it. Ah, now he sees the trick I’ve planned after that … oh wait he played it anyway! I never figured out a system to make it work. But new research suggests there may yet be a thing or two to be discovered.

I suppose many chess players find the notion that the way you sit behind the board can reveal clues as to what you’re thinking of, decidedly silly. Behaviour behind the board looks completely random and decided by circumstantial factors. But when you think about it, it’s not so stupid at all. After all, we’re primates communicating not only through words, but with gestures as well. It may be an urban legend that 93% of human communication is body language and only 7% is speech-related, but the fact is that body language is vastly important in communication, and gesticulating predated language by millions of years in human evolution, as can still be seen clearly with monkeys and apes.

According to many popular science books, body language is even the best way to learn about human psychology: there are several well-known body-signals such as crossing one’s arms across the chest (putting a barrier between the speaker and listener), making eye contact (seeking positive confirmation or showing interest) or averting one’s eyes (a sign of, among other things, disbelieve, shame or fear).

This week, The New York Times featured an article about how the body takes abstract thoughts literally in surprising ways:

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that when people were asked to engage in a bit of mental time travel, and to recall past events or imagine future ones, participants’ bodies subliminally acted out the metaphors embedded in how we commonly conceptualized the flow of time. As they thought about years gone by, participants leaned slightly backward, while in fantasizing about the future, they listed to the fore.

In the studies described in the article, people found heavy books more important than lighter ones, and they could improve their mathematical skills by making specific gestures and rotating their hands:

Among students who have difficulty with equations like 4 + 5 + 3 = __ + 3, for example, performance improves markedly if they are taught the right gestures: grouping together the unique left-side numbers with a two-fingered V, and then pointing the index finger at the blank space on the right. To learn how to rotate an object mentally, first try a pantomime. ‘If you encourage kinds to do the rotation movement with their hands, that helps them subsequently do it in their heads’, says Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago.

What about chess? After all, mathematics, music and chess are linked in special ways - Glenn Gould showed us how music can move the body in unconscious ways - so, while not exactly arithmetics, I suppose calculating variations in chess is still somewhat similar to calculating sums. This opens up all sorts of fascinating possibilities.

Anish Giri

Anish Giri in his game against David Howell at the 2010 Corus Chess Tournament in Wijk aan Zee

Do you see your opponent moving his fingers in a specific way? Perhaps he’s calculating a long forced line! See him moving his head or moving his hands underneath the table? He may be thinking about some long term positional stuff like gaining space or how to improve his piece coordination! On an even more abstract level, an opponent leaning forward means he’s thinking about his next move while an opponent leaning backwards indicates he’s evaluating your last move.

Tal’s body language in the picture is less easy to read. At first, the pointed thumb would suggest calculating stuff, but then the thumb is not moving whereas we know Tal was constantly calculating sacrifices in his head! In other words, his pose was a way of confusing his opponents - and I suddenly understand how he could become world champion! Perhaps the secret all strong chess players share is not that they know chess better than the rest of us, but that they can, in a manner of speaking, read our thoughts and anticipate on it?

Wouldn’t that be a huge consolation to us patzers? It’s not our fault – our bodies give us away! In the same fashion, some people use popular psychology to excuse their behaviour – hey, I’m from Mars and you’re from Venus, so we really shouldn’t even try to understand each other. Well, we chess players know better, of course. Still, next time you’re playing a game, think about how you and your opponent are sitting behind the board for a minute.

Do you see any relation with the position on the board or the stuff you’re thinking about? Then perhaps it’s time to become a little more self-conscious. Stop thinking about the position, put your thumb under your chin, look straight in your opponent's eyes and brilliant sacrifices will enter your head before you know it.


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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


T. Goto's picture

A nice article as always! I read some writings here and there about the great players of Soviet era using physical gestures as a mean to confuse their opponents. Petrosian, for example, sometimes put a piece in such a force that his opponents get completely focused on that side of the board, while Petrosian was actually about to break through on the other side. He was said to use his glance to the same means. Karpov was also said to be so calm that his opponents didn't believe his chances at all, and eventually spoiled the advantages from the opening (this episode was from Kasparov's book on Karpov vs Polugaevsky). We may not read our opponents' intentions, but it seems we can certainly give wrong clues. That being said, I don't look at my opponents, just the boards, because I know I miss so much on the boards!

Jonathan Faydi's picture

A few years ago in Wijk aan Zee I saw Karpov having a look at the other games of the A Group. He would go from table to table, first looking at one of the players' facial expression for a few seconds and then only at the position on the board. As though his penetrating look allowed him to read other GM's minds... Scary.

moo's picture

Idiotic. The article implies the best chess players win because they're reading the other person's body language and therefore thoughts. Complete garbage. I'm not saying body language and pyschology aren't a part of chess, but using the posture or body language of your opponent to win games or World Championships has no basis in reality and at the most may play a very minor roll a few crucial moments. Poll the top 10 in the world and ask them how much they're analyzing their opponents body language during the game and how much they're analyzing variations. I think the results will be extremely scewed towards the latter.

DrTom's picture

Haha fun column, thx :) Go go webcam play to improve your Internet chess rating !! Geez, don't I wish chess was a 93% question of attitude...

Michael's picture

Arne, with the term "some people" I didn't mean you. It's just funny that this picture is often used as an example of Tal's "diabolical" or "hypnotic" stare, while, if you know this game, it seems much more likely that Tal was just raising his eyebrows and wondering what kind of rubbish his opponent was playing. Whether he was "bewitching" his opponents in other situations, I don't know. However, I think someone (Korchnoi?) once said that he never noticed anything of the sort. It shows once again that different people can interpret body language completely differently.

Atheistic Bishop's picture

Stupid article! So shallow and naive!

vimapa's picture

Definitivamente es muy importante el lenguaje corporal, pero desde mi punto de vista, éste también puede engañarnos como en el poker

henk's picture

On many (youtube) videos one can see Karpov looking at his opponents eyes and face. I think he did this partly to disturb his opponents concentration, as looking somebody in the eyes from a short distance can on a primitive level be understood as a fisrst step towards physical aggression, but also just to see at which part of the board and at which pieces the opponent was looking and to so gain knowledge about plans and variations that opponents were considering. Korchnoi in one of his biographies states he was so disturbed by this faceglaring at one point he directly addressed karpov to tell him to stop looking at his face. However in the rules of chess one will not find anything regarding this irritating and rude but probably effective behaviour.

Lauri Lahnasalo's picture

Just a wonderful article!

Paul Janse's picture

What was Tal thinking? If the picture was taken during his 1964 game against Vasyukov, he was figuring out how to drag a hippopotamus out of a marsh, as the famous story (by Tal himself) goes, instead of calculating the difficult sacrifice which he was going to play.

So the question may even be more complicated!

jussu's picture

Nice read, as usual, but I'm quite certain that watching one's opponent is not the way to victory in chess - there are upto 32 wooden pieces to contemplate on, and those will ultimately determine the game's result, not the shape of that chunk of meat at the other side of the table.

Wim's picture

Another interesting article!

Bert de Bruut's picture

The body language I usually notice in opponents is that they die for a smoke, or desperately need to pee, or suffer from sleep deprivation, but not much else.

Guillaume's picture

"There are seventeen different things a guy can do when he lies to give himself away."

Michael's picture

I'm sorry if I ruin any illusions by revealing what Tal was really thinking when this famous picture was taken. At least it proves quite convincingly that all this body language stuff is totally misleading. "Utter determination", as Arne assumed? Or even hypnosis, as many people have claimed? Hardly. The picture was taken during the game Tal-Padevsky at the olympiad Leipzig 1960. Padevsky had just made an unsound piece sacrifice and Tal only had to consolidate his position and convert his material advantage. In these circumstances it is most likely that Tal just gave his opponent a bewildered stare, thinking: "what the hell are you doing?". Of course, some people prefer to create myths rather than facing the simple truth...

Len Ganley's picture

Very well done again.
The only ches writer who pens consistently genuinely interesting, thought-provoking articles.

Have you by the way seen gingergm's (aka carrot-topped GM Simon Williams)web page about thinking in chess?


British fan's picture

I read one article with top GMs who said they spend half their games thinking about sex. I'm not kidding.

Bart's picture

Nice article indeed, makes me think about J.H Donner going one step further when he writes about being afraid some strong chess spectators 'giving good moves' to opponents through telepatic contact. Ever since then i try to get in the mind of better chess players when they enter my board to watch my position. Once in a while then suddenly a brilliant comes to my head. But this is no proof at all of course. The interesting thing here is, i modestly think, is that the opposite can't be proved as well. I just don't believe in it, the succes rate is too low, I guess ;) Maybe Arne, write your next column on chess and telepatics, nice idea?!

Rothschild's picture

Funny article. Mental rotation has been extensively been studied in cognitive psychology, and applying mental visualization techniques analogous to known physical ones as a tool to solve problems is actually very similar to techniques that have been used for a long time. It does not differ much from the early learning exercises where you give kids apples and bananas to calculate: it's about making abstract conceps more understandable, more campatible with our senses. Now, I don't see how this could be read as body language during a chess game in any meaningful way as the whole concept is to visualize it mentally. Leaning forward and backwards could give some idea of what is being planned, but i very much doubt that it will ever be useful as something to exploity in a chess game.

As for chess super GMs, their visualization of moves is just enormous. As demonstrated in a classic study by Chase and Simon, they have an enormous ability in pattern recognition for chess, and can easily visualize potential positions in a much more precise manner than us mortal players. This develops naturally with extensive training, there are no short cuts, and patzers are patzers. No excuses :-D

jussu's picture

"The body language I usually notice in opponents is that they die for a smoke"

Disappearing for five minutes every now and then, and returning with a distincive scent? ;)

Arne Moll's picture

Michael, I fail to see why someone can't be utterly determined in a winning position. As for the sacrifices, perhaps he was contemplating his opponent's sac?
Seriously though, I wasn't trying to create any myth, of course, even though it can't be denied Tal was a mythical figure in the chess world even when he was still alive and many of his opponents themselves talked about how he bewitched them. Must be a little body language after all, no?

ChessGirl's picture

Very nice article and topic. However I am not sure that all chess players (and people in general) have the same physical reaction to different situations. For example, one aspect I thought about for some time was the moment when the chess player decides to take a stroll around the other boards. I have often read comments assuming that certain player started walking around because he has everything under control in his mind. However, maybe sometimes it could mean the complete opposite! Maybe the player feels so nervous or stressed that he cannot stay in his seat??!!! :) Anyway I always liked trying to analyze the players´ body language, since usually there´s not much I can make out from looking at the board :)

Arne Moll's picture

Absolutely, ChessGirl. In fact taking a stroll as an indication that everything is 'under control' is probably a cliche of the same order of magnitude as pressing the clock hard to stress the strength of a move you just made, or looking the opponent in the eye in a cunning way to suggest all sorts of nasty tricks - in short, the stuff you see in James Bond movies but almost never in real chess games.
I guess most chess players are much too smart to give away such obvious clues (although Kasparov was famous for his 'easily' readable body language - but he was so strong that for him, it didn't matter! ;-) )

Daaim Shabazz's picture

Len Gangly,

There are a few other writers of the essay ilk. You can find some good ones on Chess Cafe as well. Here are some of my contributions.

test's picture

Body language definitely works; I've used it often to lull my opponents into a false sense of security to get out of a lost position. ;)

Having a very confident attitude can't hurt either. I know I'm more unsure if my opponent seems to think he's got everything under control, even though I know it could just be a pose or that my opponent is simply misevaluating the position.

Making a sacrifice and then standing up to carelessly walk around will put more doubt into your opponents mind than if you are nervously sitting behind the board frantically calculation variations. Of course it helps if your sacrifice is actually correct. ;)

BLT's picture

It's not what moves you play, but how you play them...

ogba's picture

Brilliant article...even though I dont agree with all of it.

Len Ganley's picture

@ Daaim Grabass

Thanks for the tip, but Chesscafe - nothing of particular interest there really.

Why '65th square' by the way? Where would you put it?

vamsi krishna's picture

Thank you..

Coco Loco's picture

@ Len Ganley,

Read Dvoretsky's articles at chesscafe, and then find a clever way to mock his last name. Be sure to let us all know.

ron bateman's picture

Body lanuage not really important!

Felix's picture

You can actually read other guys by looking at which part of the board they look at and their eye movements (and eyebrow gestures). I use that in training to see what my pupils are calculating and how long they take to see certain things on the board.

In blitz I use it to look at the "wrong" part of the board when creating a thread on the other part. Usually your oppenent notices where you are looking at and doesn't see it then.
you can also see players hiding there eyes with their hand during a game therefore :)

Castro's picture

Maybe I loose lots of important information (don't think so :-) ), but the only thing that matters in my opponent's body language is if he has already played his move.
So I tend to agree with some critics on the pertinence and thesis of the article.
It's only good point is some food for thought, but not very much, this time.
As for Tahl's photo, it looks more as if he got distracted by some noise or movement, at that moment. Nothing special, beyond a very nice portraid of a chess genius as a simple guy, in a simple pose, for me.

Kraskapov's picture

I heard that Kasparov, when playing under his secret nick on, actually has an ELO of 1125. Body language is all he actually knows.

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