Be the player, not the played: Advice for novice learners

What chess really teaches us about the path to mastery

Junaid Mubeen
5 min readJun 13, 2021


Play is so often shunned in formal learning environments. The standard maths curriculum, for instance, is like a purgatory for student-novices; before they are given the chance to do mathematics proper, they have to consume a years-long diet of facts and procedures. ‘Play’ is the bit that comes after (if at all), once these supposed prerequisites are embedded.

Arguments against play centre on the idea that novices think differently to experts. There’s a large extent to which this is true. In a series of studies half a century ago, subjects were asked to memorise and recall chess board configurations. Two key findings emerged:

  • If the arrangements represent plausible game-like scenarios, a subject’s recall improves in proportion to their level of chess expertise.
  • If the arrangements are random, then chess expertise has no predictive power for recalling the pieces.
Two configurations. One represents an actual game scenario, the other is randomised. Chess enthusiasts will know the difference, and will exercise better recall of the authentic configuration (but not the randomised one). Source.

Expert chess players literally see the board differently to novices. More experienced players draw on their knowledge of the game to compress the arrangements of the board into more manageable chunks. For instance, if a bishop has pinned a knight against the queen; the three pieces can be seen as a single ‘pin’ rather than three separate positions. This compressive advantage was erased in the second experiment, where the configurations lost their structure.

It’s this insight — that experts have a greater volume and variety of knowledge representations — that is used to justify cramming novice learners with knowledge. The thinking goes that novices can only be expected to perform like experts once they are armed with the same stores of knowledge. Otherwise they’ll suffer from ‘cognitive overload’ as they strive to piece together the most basic moves.

How memories are made

There’s no denying that knowledge consumption — even hardcore memorisation — plays a prominent role in many intellectual activities. Chess players don’t shy away from this fact. Bobby Fischer even went as far as to suggest that Chess boils down to memorising opening plays. Magnus Carlsen practices retrieval blindfolded.



Junaid Mubeen

Mathematics. Education. Innovation. Views my own.