CHAPTER 11. Intuition, Rationality and Chess Expertise
The opposite of moves that have proven to be successful coming to mind automatically,
almost randomly, are moves that come to mind much less easily,
though they may be the strongest in the given situation.
International Master Willy Hendriks (2012: p. 42)
One might think that chess, a game sometimes referred to as “the gymnasium of the mind,”132 is an obvious example of the think-to-win principle, for it would seem that contrary to just doing it, chess experts are engaged in effortful, deep strategic thought. I do in fact think this. However, in the philosophical literature on expertise, chess (especially speed chess) is used to illustrate how one’s best actions are not even in part the result of rational thought, but are rather instances of simply seeing straightaway what to do, and doing it. For example, in line with the extreme form of just-do-it, which tells us that expert actions simply happen to the expert, Hubert Dreyfus argues that although analysis and deliberation play a role in chess in sub-optimal situations, the best moves made by chess players at the international master level or grandmaster level involve neither analysis nor deliberation, nor even conceptualizing the board. Rather, Dreyfus tells us that “after much experience, the chess master is directly drawn by the forces on the board to make a masterful move” (2013: p. 35). High-level chess, on Dreyfus’s view, is bred neither in the heart nor in the head, but out there on sixty-four squares.
I think that this view is mistaken, and in this chapter shall critically analyze Dreyfus’s view that when chess players are at their best, they do not think, but rather simply move. Dreyfus’s position contrasts with John McDowell’s view that reason, or at least conceptualization, plays a necessary role in all of our actions: it’s concepts all the way down, for McDowell (2013). However, when it comes to speed chess, McDowell’s view presents merely a less extreme version of the just-do-it principle, proscribing not all mental processes (as Dreyfus does), but just explicit thoughts, or thoughts that are expressible in words. On McDowell’s view, although high level chess players have implicit, or not consciously accessed, conceptual knowledge about what they are doing as they are playing, in a very fast game such players “do not explicitly think its content…unless the flow is broken” (2013: p. 46). To be sure, even if chess is the gymnasium of the mind, it is reasonable to think that that during a one-minute game, there is no time for thought. However, I shall argue that experts at speed chess do think explicitly about their actions. Of course, chess players, speed or otherwise, do not deliberate over every possible move, but rather, as Dreyfus emphasizes, they “zero in” on a limited number of possible moves. Nonetheless, contra Dreyfus, I shall also argue that there is a sense in which such zeroing in is both conceptual and rational.
Many of the ideas expressed in this chapter are based on work I have done with philosopher and national master chess player Cory A. Evans, and I am grateful to him for all he has taught me about chess, and his generosity in granting me permission to recount some of our work here.