Why do chess masters win? Curiosity surrounds people who do well in this popular board game, and it isn't easy to understand the mental and intellectual dynamics of the players excelling in it.

Probing that enigmatic plank are cognitive scientists from Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) of Bielefeld University, where their project called "Ceege" used a research method that tracked eye movements and facial expressions of chess players.

Ceege stands for "Chess Expertise from Eye Gaze and Emotion," and the early results explained how Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen earned the world chess champion title this year.

"There are numerous theories on how the brain controls attention and solves problems in both everyday situations and game situations," says Professor Thomas Schack, a sports scientist who heads CITEC research group's "Neurocognition and Action — Biomechanics."

Study Details

The project studied 120 participants, in which one-third were chess experts while the rest were novices.

The Bielefeld researchers applied various techniques to glean information on players' activity, including special eye-tracking glasses to measure their gaze. The facial expressions and body language were recorded via video cameras.

Microexpressions (including facial expressions and gestures) along with changes in respiratory rate, perspiration, and heart beat were tracked by James Crowley and his colleagues from French research institute Inria Grenoble Rhones-Aples, which partnered with Schack's group. 

One of the scientists, Kai Essig, said the findings can predict the relative strength of an individual chess player and his scope of winning a match.

Essig observed that amateurs, for instance, jump rapidly from one figure to another and look at all the pieces as if they all have a big role in a particular situation.

He concluded that chess experts differed in significant eye movements.

The new knowledge was harnessed by the researchers in their analysis of the chess world championship this November, saying it had been apparent early on that Carlsen would emerge victorious.

"He had shown more initiative in the first six matches. It was hardly possible for his opponent Sergej Karjakin to dominate the game," shared physicist Thomas Küchelmann.  

The team seeks to use their findings to develop an electronic chess assistant that would analyze the weak points of both experts and novices. The assistant, using eye tracking as a technique, would recommend an optimal move in a given situation in the game. 

Further, they are looking forward to integrating the system into a robot to help motivate players in a way different from an assistant sending verbal suggestions on a tablet. 

Carlsen: A World Champion's History

In an interview, prior to the November world championship, Carlsen himself threw hints about his sources of inspiration and strategy.

He has been the defending champion since 2013 and, in the 2016 match, played against Russia's 26-year-old Sergey Karjakin. Karjakin was a Ukrainian who became a Russian citizen in 2009 under a special decree by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.

Carlsen said he is an admirer of Karjakin "as a person and a chess player." He expressed admiration for his opponent's tenacious moves and the ability to find positions.

Carlsen hoped to break Russian player's defenses from tips found in military history. He drew inspiration and ideas from reading war heroes, as well as studying French conqueror Napoleon's strategic ways. 

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