The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface



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I think in general terms during the game . . . I would be very surprised if there were a single very strong chess player who did not think in general terms. It’s just that it depends what one means by “general terms” . . . (Chabris, 1999: p. 16)
Chabris clarified that by general terms he means something along the lines of “now I want to think about ideas of how to get my rook onto the seventh rank.” Wolff’s response:
Oh yes, sure, absolutely. And I think it’s something that all strong Grandmasters have to learn how to do. It’s one of the things that separates chess players of a certain class. I’m sure that one of the very things that separates the strongest players from the not-so-strong players is the strength and clarity of that thinking . . . (ibid.: p. 17)
To be sure, not all specific heuristics are conscious, or at least not all are consciously represented in words, such as those Evans used to describe the specific heuristic above, or as Gobet puts it, specific heuristics “do not need to be encoded declaratively” (2012: p. 241). Rather, as Gobet points out, many are learned through extensive practice and study of the game and form a “perceptual chunk,” to which possible actions get attached (ibid.: p. 246)138. This is where specific heuristics shade into a form of zeroing in, yet, as I shall argue in my discussion of expert level chess intuition, they still may be rational and conceptual.

Although grandmasters may sometimes beat weaker players without ever relying on anything beyond heuristics, it is times when specific heuristics are flouted which decide who wins in games between Grandmasters.139 For example, in the famous game Botvinnik vs. Capablanca (in the AVRO 1938 International Chess Tournament), Botvinnik, a future World Champion, defeated Capablanca, a former World Champion, by breaking a heuristic rule and subsequently coming up with a winning move (CITATION). In their particular position, Capablanca used an advanced heuristic rule to justify capturing a stray pawn. But Botvinnik, after prolonged thought, brilliantly allowed this. He broke the rule, it seems, because he consciously realized that in that particular rare position, Capablanca would not be able to retreat his pieces in time. In general, rules are of no help in truly novel positions with no themes (that is, positions totally dissimilar from any past games with which the expert is familiar) and highly tactical positions (that is, in highly complex positions where broad plans are less important than trying to figure out exactly what is happening). Here, then, Botvinnik’s brilliant move is an example of not following rules – yet it certainly is not an example of just-do-it.

Dreyfus, however, argues that expert play must not rely on heuristic rules, since “if one followed the reconstructed rules articulated by an expert[,] one would not exhibit expertise but mere competence” (2005: p. 54). But the consequence does not follow: although merely learning a grandmaster’s repertoire of heuristic rules may not turn a competent player into a grandmaster, this does not mean that the grandmaster never relies on heuristic rules when deciding on a move. Rather, the reason why this would not turn a competent player into an expert is because in addition to employing heuristic rules, experts also calculate out the consequences of moves, and have an ability to zero in on a few extremely good moves – which brings us to the topics of the next two sections.




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