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28 January 2011 / Liz Johns

Want To Beat A Chess Grand Master? Think Like A Rat

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

It’s a wonder to me how chess players’ brains work. How is it possible to strategically plan so many moves ahead, consider alternative courses of action and, at the same time, second-guess your opponent’s next move. It seems an amazing feat of logical thinking and analysis to me, something that only a highly-developed human brain could tackle. But in fact, proficient chess players don’t use their brains that way when playing. Not totally anyway. They are not so much thinking logically, but using memories of patterns seen in past games to recognise their next best move. And this, surprisingly, is exactly how rats think, though to rats, this brain activity comes naturally, whereas in humans, it’s something we have to learn to develop.

How chess players think

finding was reported by Japanese scientists from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Wako, Japan, who analysed the brains of Shogi players (a game similar to chess). The same game board was shown to Shogi amateurs and Shogi experts and they were asked to make the next best move. In the experts’ brains, a part of the brain called the caudate nucleus fired up, but not so in the amateurs’. The caudate nucleus was originally thought to be involved with control of voluntary movement, but more recently, it has been demonstrated that the caudate is highly involved in memory and recognition of patterns. Something highly beneficial for chess and shogi playing. And the more the caudate is used, the more players ‘intuitively’ know what the next best move is.

Chess players, therefore are not so much analysing each move, assessing what the other player may do (all pre-frontal cortex work), but recognising and remembering patterns on the chess board and recalling what they have experienced in similar game situations and using that to make the optimum next move.

Photo courtesy of

How rats think

The caudate nucleus is highly developed in rats and mice, but not so much in other mammals. Whereas it takes many years of practice for chess players to develop use of their caudate nucleus for memory recall and recognition activity, rats and mice use it by default. They use it naturally in their every day activities. Not playing chess obviously, but for relocating food sources previously discovered, and in movement planning whilst navigating through their own and new habitats.

Do you remember when?

There are some people whose caudate nucleus has been found to be more active than others and these individuals have what is known as superior autobiographical memory. People with this ability can recall virtually everything from their life history in great detail, often to 100% accuracy. Whether this is an ability you’d envy or not is up to the individual to decide. I think I’m happier with my “now, where did I put my keys” memory and keeping the past as a comfortable blur.

Your move

Did you know that there is a chess opening called the ‘Reversed Rat’ and, if this means anything to you, is 1.d3 e5. One more useless fact for your brain to remember or forget as it so choses.


Leave a Comment
  1. Julie Helms / Jan 29 2011 2:14 am

    Very interesting research. This is a tad off-topic but I just saw it and it is about Chess– this gentleman plays 9 chess masters simultaneously and wins, and he doesn’t really know how to play chess himself that well– I suspect he is using a different part of his brain altogether!



    • Liz Johns / Feb 5 2011 11:55 am

      That was great, thanks for directing me to the link. Wish my brain was like that!


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